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Approaching El Niño, the fuel to the fire of Climate Change. What is it and where does it strike?

Centuries ago, Peruvian fishermen noticed a peculiar, recurring event around December: the waters of the Pacific Ocean became unusually warm, affecting their fish catch. They named this phenomenon "El Niño de Navidad," or "The Christ Child," because of its timing around Christmastime. What those fishermen observed was the beginning of our understanding of one of the most influential climate phenomena known today: El Niño.

What is El Niño?

El Niño occurs when certain areas of the Pacific Ocean become unusually warm. This warmth isn't confined to the ocean – it has far-reaching impacts, shifting weather patterns across the globe (see the regional perspective below)

El Niño and Climate Change: What is the Connection?

As our planet's temperature rises, El Niño events might become even more intense, since most of the global warming is absorbed by the oceans. This could lead to more extreme and unpredictable weather disturbances. Its impact on GDP highlights a recent study, published in Nature (2023). While there is a typical lagging effect on GDP over time, this pattern is becoming more severe in parallel to climate change in recent years. Thus, fuel to the fire of climate change. Let´s take a look to the regional economics:

El Niño Economics: a regional perspective


Milder and later winters in Northern Europe, especially in countries like Germany, might reduce the demand for heating, affecting the energy sector. Though, a colder start into 2024 is expected ("Winter is coming" only a bit later). Changes in temperature and rainfall can affect staple crops, impacting prices and yields. For instance, wine regions in France might see variations in grape harvests, affecting wine production. Warmer winters can challenge ski resorts in the Alps, reducing the appeal for winter tourism and impacting local economies. And this comes on top of the melding glaciers, as Switzerland reported in 2023 already.

North America:

While the southern U.S. might face infrastructure damage from excess rainfall, the northern parts could witness agricultural losses due to droughts. Such disruptions have previously shaved off significant figures from national GDP.

South America:

For countries like Peru and Ecuador, excessive rain might mean losses in agriculture and infrastructure. Flooding and landslides, causing damages to roads, bridges, and homes, which come with repair costs. And, as the original observation came from fishermen, with changes in ocean temperatures, fish migrations can be affected, potentially impacting the livelihoods of coastal communities. Historically, such events have seen countries' GDPs plummet by 1-2%.

South-East Asia:

Predominantly agricultural, this region faces significant challenges during El Niño events. Drier conditions can severely affect rice and palm oil production — two of the region's major exports. A decline in yields can lead to increased food prices and negatively affect export revenues. Reduced rain may also affect hydroelectric power generation in countries like Laos and Vietnam that depend on hydropower.


As Australia combats intensified heat and dryness, the agricultural and forestry sectors, especially wine and grain production, can face setbacks, threatening export revenues. The costs associated with increased and more severe bushfires can be immense, from property loss to resources spent on firefighting efforts.


As East Africa preps for torrential rains, it risks infrastructural damages and disease outbreaks, while Southern Africa's droughts can lead to food scarcity, impacting local economies. Changes in potable water availability can affect sanitation and the spread of waterborne diseases.

Zooming Out - Adaptation is key

El Niño and climate change not only affect the natural balance but also pull significant economic strings. The choreography of this duo is intricate and impactful. Recognizing their mutual connection and resulting patterns is essential for getting more prepared for the consequences.

Thus, governments´ and companies´ efforts need to emphasize all around forecasting and early warning systems. Furthermore, agriculture practises need to switch towards adaptating technologies, such as introducing drought/flood-tolerant crop varieties and expanding irrigation. Infrastructure, the backbone of our societies, needs reinforcement against the above mentioned threats in the regions.

By understanding and adapting to the effects of El Niño now, we lay the groundwork for confronting the amplified challenges of a >3°C world to come.

Adaptation is key.


Further readings:


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